Cameron’s city challenge as apathy prevails

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THE failure of Britain’s political elite to connect with voters has been compounded by the wholesale rejection of David Cameron’s plan to introduce elected mayors to transform key industrial cities in Yorkshire and further afield.

These are the stark conclusions from a set of election results where apathy was the only clearcut winner. And, among those who did vote, many chose to register a protest – whether it be George Galloway’s Respect party ousting Ian Greenwood, the Labour leader of Bradford Council; Lib Dem representation hitting a new low or Ukip accruing sufficient centre-right votes to threaten Mr Cameron’s chances of governing alone after the next election.

While Labour were the principle beneficiary, Ed Miliband failed to secure 40 per cent of the vote on the back of a disastrous Budget and a double dip recession. His party also started from a low base – these seats were last contested in 2008 when support for Gordon Brown had disintegrated.

However no political inquest will be complete without the main parties assessing how they can re-engage with the growing body of people who are now dismissive of local and national politicians because they are perceived – rightly or wrongly – to be out of touch.

A failure to recognise this reality will only see politics becoming more splintered, increasing the likelihood of further coalition governments in the future.

Yet, while Mr Cameron drew comfort from Boris Johnson’s victory in the London Mayoral contest, this was being eclipsed by the urgent need to identify a plan B to kickstart growth – that still elusive commodity – across the North.

He might instigate a Cabinet reshuffle to freshen up his administration, though this will only work with the right policies in the first place, and then use the imminent announcement on transport, jobs and skills for the Leeds City Region in a bid to regain the initiative.

The Prime Minister will have his work cut out. These moves will only be papering over the cracks that stem from the rash decision to abolish regional development agencies like Yorkshire Forward before an alternative structure had been devised to stimulate the investment that is crucial to Britain’s recovery.

This saw a network of local enterprise partnerships created – their effectiveness is still unproven – before Mr Cameron decided that England’s great cities should follow London’s lead and have an elected mayors.

This newspaper only backed the mayoral concept for Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford and Wakefield on grounds of pragmatism – these cities could not afford to be excluded from investment opportunities if Mr Cameron went ahead with his threat to give preferential treatment to those areas which consented to his mayoral plan.

A sterile debate also did not help, even though Doncaster residents decided to retain the concept of elected mayors after a decade of acrimony. An electorate underwhelmed by the unedifying conduct of Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone’s respective campaigns in London then became exasperated with Mr Cameron’s vagueness about the precise powers of city mayors and the likelihood that the role was only going to appeal to existing council leaders rather than inspirational entrepreneurs with fresh ideas.

The only consolation is that Yorkshire’s cities are not alone in rejecting the mayoral plan. Voters cannot be accused of stubbornness when Birmingham, Manchester and Nottingham did likewise – while Liverpool saw its longstanding council leader become mayor only after councillors circumvented the referendum process.

As such, it will be a very empty Downing Street if Mr Cameron proceeds with his pre-election threat to hold regular Cabinet meetings for the country’s elected mayors. There will be a lot of empty chairs.

The Prime Minister must now produce a new strategy for the regions. And, while clarity is essential, he does not have time on his side – unemployment is already at a perturbing level. David Cameron also needs to remember this: Yorkshire’s challenges are different to those of London and he should not expect to impose a now discredited mayoral concept on this region after the plan was rejected by those who did vote. That will only create even more cynicism and disillusionment.